Legislators change course, suggest removing proficiency-based diploma requirement

Proficiency-based education requires a new way of granting high school diplomas in Maine. It has parents and teachers from around the state seeking answers.
Rebecca Millett greets young students
Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cape Elizabeth).

Lawmakers who oversee state education policy voted 9-3 Friday to no longer require high schools to issue proficiency-based diplomas, a move in response to push back from parents who say the system is not working in some districts in Maine.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, introduced the language to allow districts to issue the new type of diplomas if they wish, but it does not require schools to move to the system if they do not want to.

“I view this as the least drastic proposal that’s before us,” she said during a meeting of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Millett said she hopes that districts that have found success using the diplomas will “reflect improvement” and that proficiency-based diplomas will “be the leading model it’s purported to be.”

The committee discussed three bills, all of which sought to make some change to the 2012 law that requires high schools to issue diplomas to students who show they are proficient in eight areas. One bill sought to extend the timeline for implementation by one year, another repealed the requirement, and the third make significant changes to the law, including removing the word proficient and narrowing the scope to just two subjects.

In the end, the committee killed one of the bills, voted 11-1 to nearly kill another and amended one so that school districts may choose, but are not required, to use the system. That bill, L.D. 1666, now moves forward to the House and Senate for consideration in the waning days of the legislative session.

The proficiency-based diploma law as it currently stands requires school districts to implement their own systems to make sure high school students achieved proficiency in English language arts, math, science and technology, social studies, health education and physical education, visual and performing arts, career and education development and world languages. Some school districts have already instituted major changes, even granting diplomas based on the new system, while others are much further behind in the process.

And while the state law does not require school districts to abandon A-F grading or change college transcripts, some have adopted changes, such as giving 1-4 grades.

Education Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, offered a different amendment that was not adopted on Friday, but would have instituted a one-year delay and required significant additional support from the state Department of Education. It included creating stakeholder groups at all schools in Maine that would include teachers, requiring the state to define proficiency, training for teachers and model course descriptions.

Langley, who sponsored the original bill to create the proficiency-based diploma system, said he heard from teachers and others that what they needed from the state was “pressure and support.”

Langley was one of three who voted against the majority committee recommendation.

“Once you turn a ‘shall’ to a ‘may’, it’s a kinder, gentler way to repeal proficiency-based (diplomas),” he said.

Eight school districts will be awarding proficiency-based diplomas this year, two are scheduled for 2019, 10 will be ready in 2020 and the rest are on track to award the diplomas in 2021, according to the Maine Department of Education.

The new diploma system was one of three major education initiatives championed by Gov. Paul LePage, along with charter schools and a system to give all schools A-F grades.

During a nearly six-hour public hearing on Monday, the committee heard or received written testimony from more than 80 people. A large and vocal group of parents from the Lewiston/Auburn area have been active in recent months urging a full repeal, but some of those who testified on Monday said the system is working in other parts of the state.

For example, four top administrators from the Mount Desert Island Regional School System signed a letter to the committee stating that repealing the law would undermine six years of work to implement the new system.

“We are appalled by the apparent willingness to abandon the deeper, more challenging conversation of how to best support all of our students to be successful and to develop their potential,” according to the letter signed by Superintendent Marc Gousse and three others.

But parents upset by the new system say there’s no data to show that it leads to better outcomes for students, that they find the 1-4 grading system confusing and arbitrary, and they are worried transcripts based on the system won’t be easy for college admissions officials to understand.

On Friday, lawmakers said given that the Legislature is supposed to adjourn before the end of the month, they didn’t feel they had time to adequately vet new ways of fixing the law.

“There is both joy and pain in this decision today to take this vote,” said Rep. Roger Fuller, D-Lewiston. “So many districts have rationalized compliance on the misnomer of what is and isn’t required by law. My fondest hope is this would be a great new beginning to move forward.”


Susan Cover

Susan Cover has been a journalist for 24 years, working at newspapers in Kansas, Rhode Island, Ohio and Maine. In 2002, Susan moved to Maine to cover state government and spent 10 years in the Statehouse Bureau working for the Kennebec Journal. She covered state budgets, hundreds of bills, and referenda campaigns including bear baiting and marriage equality. In 2013, Susan was promoted to city editor at the Kennebec Journal, leading a team of reporters and photographers to put out each day’s paper. Susan is a graduate of Muskingum University in Ohio and has a master’s degree in newspaper journalism from Syracuse University. Most recently, Susan left daily newspaper journalism to pursue freelance writing and her other passion – taking run-down houses in Kennebec County and bringing them back to life. She lives in Augusta with her partner and their pets – Piper the cat and Wooley the dog.
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